Quantum Computing: A Nasty Business

March 3, 2021

In a PhD program, successful candidates push the boundaries of knowledge and change the world for the better. Sometimes. One illustration of this happy outcome is the case of Zak Romaszko at the University of Sussex, who contributed to the school’s ion trap quantum computer project. Robaszko is now working at his professor’s spin-off company Universal Quantum on commercialization of the tech to create large-scale quantum computers. Bravo!

Unfortunately, not all PhD programs are crucibles of such success stories. One in particular appears to be just the opposite, as described in “A Dishonest, Indifferent, and Toxic Culture” posted at the Huixiang Voice. The blog is dedicated to covering the heartbreaking experience of PhD candidate Huixiang Chen, who was studying at the University of Florida’s department of Electrical and Computer Engineering when he took his own life. The note Chen left behind indicated the reason, at least in part, was the pressure put on him by his advisor to go along with a fraudulent peer-review process.

We learn:

“It has been 20 months since the tragedy that a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Florida committed suicide, accusing his advisor coerce him into academic misconduct. Our latest article dropped a bump into the academic world by exposing the evidence of those academic misconduct. The Nature Index followed up with an in-depth report with comments from scientists and academic organizations worldwide expressing their shock and deep concerns about this scandal that happened at the University of Florida.”

A joint committee of the academic publisher Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) investigated the matter and found substance in the allegations. ACM has imposed a 15-year ban on participation in any ACM Conference or Publication on the offenders, the most severe penalty the organization has ever imposed. The post continues:

“The conclusion finally confirmed two important accusations listed in Huixiang Chen’s suicide note that:
1) The review process for his ISCA-2019 paper was broken, and most of the reviewers of the paper are ‘friends’ of his advisor Dr. Tao Li. The review process became organized and colluded academic fraud:
2)After recognizing that there are severe problems in his ISCA-2019 paper, Huixiang Chen was coerced by his advisor Dr. Tao Li to proceed with a submission despite that Huixiang Chen repeatedly expressed concerns about the correctness of the results reported in work, which led to a strong conscience condemnation and caused the suicide.
“Finally, the paper with academic misconduct got retracted by ACM as Huixiang’s last wish.”

Chen hoped the revelations he left behind would lead to a change in the world; perhaps they will. The problem, though, is much larger than the culture at one university. Peer reviewed publications have become home to punitive behavior, non-reproducible results, and bureaucratic pressure. Perhaps it is time to find another way to review and share academic findings? Google’s AI ethics department may have some thoughts on academic scope and research reviews.

Cynthia Murrell, March 3, 2021

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